The Bible teaches that God does not lie (Heb.6:18), so how is this possible:

1 Kings 22:20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’
And one said one thing, and another said another.
21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’
22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’
And the spirit said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’
And the Lord said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’
23 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.”

The answer is that this did not literally happen, God did no such thing. The idea that God really put a lying spirit in anyone’s mouth comes from not reading the full context.

King Ahab and his court prophets

1Kings 22:1 For three years Syria and Israel continued without war. 2 But in the third year Jehoshaphat the king of Judah came down to the king of Israel. 3 And the king of Israel said to his servants, “Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, and we keep quiet and do not take it out of the hand of the king of Syria?” 4 And he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?” And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”

The context is that the king of the northern kingdom, Israel, wants to persuade the king of the southern kingdom, Judah, to join his war. But to do so he has to convince the doubtful, and pious, king of Judah, that the war is what God wants. So Ahab marshals his ‘house prophets’, the ones who say what Ahab wants. This event appears to be after Ahab’s repentance from Baal worship (1 Kings 21:25), so these appear to be prophets of Yahweh not Baal — albeit it the Yahweh who was worshipped in golden calves at Bethel and Dan, rather than the true Yahweh who was worshipped in the temple at Jerusalem.

1 Kings 22:5 And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the Lord.” 6 Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

However the king of Judah is nervous — how can he believe these prophets of the Lord who eat at Ahab’s table and worship at Bethel and Dan? So Ahab reluctantly is forced to send for Micaiah, a real prophet.

1 Kings 22:7 But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire?” 8 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah the son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” 9 Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah the son of Imlah.”

Then follows the performance of Ahab’s house-prophets, led by Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah:

1 Kings 22:10 Now the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria, and all the prophets were prophesying before them. 11 And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.’” 12 And all the prophets prophesied so and said, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

Following this performance, the guards bring, under protest, Micaiah:

1 Kings 22:13 And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” 14 But Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” 15 And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” 16 But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”

It is not clear why Micaiah’s positive answer brings anger from the king. Perhaps it is far too easy. Or perhaps there was a note of sarcasm in the response, which we do not pick up in writing. Or alternatively the king realised that “Go up and triumph” is not the same as “You will surely triumph”, and that Micaiah did not say which king — he may secretly have meant the king of Syria! In any case Micaiah’s next comment is wholly negative:

17 And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’”18 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?”

So he was predicting the victory of the king of Syria… not of Ahab.

Micaiah’s famous lying spirit prophecy

19 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 23 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.”

There are several indications that this “vision” is ironic, if not sarcastic.

First, the context; does a prophet of God suddenly produce a “vision” to order? Prophecies can be spur of the moment, but visions generally come at night or in deep prayer (2 Sam.7:4, Job 33:15, Ezekiel 1:1). The instant nature of this “vision” suggests the false prophet visions of Jer.23:16.

Second; the prophets of Ahab have already said what Ahab wants to hear, and it is evident that the prophets of Ahab need no encouragement from angels to lie.

Third; nowhere in the Bible do we find the teaching that the court of heaven is an indecisive democracy with God asking for advice or ideas from the  “host of heaven” (Hebrew, Sabaoth). Nor do we have one angel saying one thing, one saying another. This sort of heavenly court is found in Canaanite myth — for example in the little we know about Baal — but totally unknown in the Bible, since God is a God who does not take advice (“who hath been his counsellor? Isa 40:13-14, etc.). Then God agrees to be behind a lie, a deception. Again this is almost unheard of in Bible (“Let God be true though every one were a liar Rom.3:4, etc.) until the exception of the “great delusion” of 2Thess.2:11.

There’s a particular oddness about the use of “host” here rather than “angels”. The basic meaning of angels (messengers, malakim) is appropriate to the sending of a lying spirit, whereas “host” (sabaoth, armies) is not always positive in the Old Testament. The first reference to the “host of heaven” (Det.4:19, 17:3) is to forbid their worship, then we have positive mention of the Lord of Hosts at Shiloh (1Sam.1:3) but then again negative references associating their worship with Baal (2Kings 17:6, 21:3, Jeremiah 8:2, Acts 7:42). In fact, of 18 uses of the phrase “host of heaven”, at least 15 are negative, and of the remaining 3, 2 probably refer to literal stars in the sky.

Fourth; Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah clearly understood it as sarcastic, and aimed at himself:

1 Kings 22:24 Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near and struck Micaiah on the cheek and said, “How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?” 25 And Micaiah said, “Behold, you shall see on that day when you go into an inner chamber to hide yourself.”26 And the king of Israel said, “Seize Micaiah, and take him back to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son, 27 and say, ‘Thus says the king, “Put this fellow in prison and feed him meager rations of bread and water, until I come in peace.”’” 28 And Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, all you peoples!”

Note in particular: “How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?”. The meaning is clear enough — you Micaiah say that I’m lying with a spirit from the host of heaven in my mouth, well who is to say that you are not lying yourself? And to go with that, slap!

The end of the story is predictable enough. Despite Ahab having disguised himself and put Jehoshaphat in the line of danger, a random arrow struck Ahab, but Jehoshaphat survived. We do not read of the end of Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah on the day when he goes into an inner chamber to hide himself, but this too is assumed. It would not be unlikely that Ahab’s widow Jezebel had him killed for the “lying prophecy” which killed her husband. It’s not as if she needed an excuse to kill a prophet of the Lord, even one of the Lord who was worshipped in the golden calves.

Conclusion

In sum, there’s nothing in the above that suggests that there was a literal meeting of the Sabaoth in heaven where God asked for their suggestions. Or that that’s how God’s court works at all. It’s simply an ironic prophecy, like so many of the prophecies of Elijah and Isaiah. It’s also possible that Micaiah may have sown in the irony some commentary about the religious views of the prophets of the golden calves, the ones who worshipped at Bethel and Dan. We simply don’t know — we have no information on the religion of the northern kingdom other than a few glimpses in Kings and Chronicles and Isaiah-period prophecies against “Ephraim”. It’s also possible that the later comment comparing Manasseh’s building of altars to the host of heaven in Jerusalem being “like Ahab” (2Kings 21:3-5) indicates that Ahab had done the same at Bethel and Dan.

It also isn’t out of the question that these northern prophets had, during the years when they were forced to worship Baal by Ahab’s wife Jezebel, absorbed some of the Canaanite ideas about a heavenly court with an indecisive and fallible god (Baal), and let that distort their view of the God of Israel. At least we know that Det.4:19 predicts and Acts 7:42 confirms that worship of the “host of heaven” was a continuing problem in Israel and Judah. In either case, the context and strange language looks like Micaiah is attacking Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah with his own beliefs — much as Jesus parodied Pharisee beliefs in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In all, this “vision” is not a secure base to argue that God literally helps false prophets to do what comes naturally — lie.

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  • Jeffrey Lowe

    Thanks for this article; I always wondered about why the Lord would send a lying spirit out!

  • Vertyl Sams

    Your analysis makes perfect sense, especially as Jesus himself used such an illustration. Question: what specifically were the Pharisee belief concerning the parable?

  • Connie New

    I like the article. How do you feel about I Samuel 16:14? Do you feel it’s the same conclusion. Saul’s attendants tell Saul an evil spirit was sent from God but the verse before they say it does say an evil spirit was sent from God?

  • danmathetes@yahoo.com

    In regard to 1 Kings 22:22, “This did not happen etc.” The answering person does not provide any real documentation for this remark. While it does say in Heb. 6:18 that God does not lie. It does not say that spirits do not lie, which indeed they do. My question is, whose spirit was it. The Lords, or the devils. They are all under His control and at His bidding. Irregardless the action did have Gods approval on it, and it did result in His glory. To which end, all things do. Selah

  • Kimberly Miller

    @ #4 Dan — I agree with your analysis. I can also add a possible supporting scripture for what you are saying about God being sovereign over ALL spirits: Isaiah 54:16 “See, it is I who created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame
    and forges a weapon fit for its work. And, it is I who have created the destroyer to wreak havoc.” [Then, our wonderful, blood-bought inheritance] v. 17 “No weapon forged against you will prevail…”

  • Don’t shift the blame.

    Let’s look at your first point: vision vs. prophecy.
    It’s funny how in all the Bible text for this story that you tried to analyze which is basically 1 Kings 22:1-23 the word “vision” does not show up once. “Prophet(s)” comes up 5 times as do the words “Prophesy”, “prophesies,” “prophesied,” and “prophesying” each come up once. You have a nice total of 9 instances of words falling under the root noun prophecy and not one mention of vision. Prophecy is defined as “a prediction uttered under divine inspiration.” I have no idea where someone reading the passages you presented would get the word vision from and just for arguments sake let’s say the main passages did say the word vision it does not necessarily mean that it cannot be instantaneous or that it has to be at night or in deep prayer. In Ezekiel 1 nowhere does it say that Ezekiel is sleeping or in deep prayer. Instead he seems to be wide awake and at the point when he saw the likeness of God he fell facedown and in Ezekiel 2 a spirit had to come to him and raise him to his feet. Jeremiah 23:16 that you mention does not have your general assumption nor does the definition of vision. So your first vision vs prophecy point is null.
    Second point: evident that the prophets of Ahab need no encouragement from angels to lie.
    Yes the prophets said what Ahab wants to hear but that is all in accordance to the method clearly outlined by the spirit who was answering God who ignorantly asked “By what means?” The spirit did say he will make all of Ahab’s prophets lie and that is exactly what happened. Any other conjecture you arrive at is solely your own. As far as it being evident that they lied on their own the burden of proof rests on you to prove that it was evident that they were doing this on their own for their own reasons and not according to what is clearly in the text.
    Third point: God does not take advice and God does not agree to be behind a lie.
    God does have a council as clearly shown in many passages in the Bible where he refers to it or an assembly. Job 15:8, Psalm 82:1, Psalm 89:7, Psalm 103:20-21 all make these references. I’m not saying it’s democratic but I’ve never known a despot without advisors. God has lied and confused according to passages in the Bible. I’m glad you used the keyword “almost” when referring to God supporting a lie and then citing an exception by your own self. It begs the question, if there is one exception why not two or three and so on. Genesis 22:12 has the supposedly all-knowing God saying “Now I know that you fear God” to Abraham after giving the poor guy the false impression aka lying that he wanted Abraham to kill his son.
    Conclusion: Let’s stop shifting blame here because to God presiding judges are responsible for their decisions and God through inaction let the lying spirit carry on God’s plan. As Connie pointed out this is not the only time God has given permission or sent harmful spirits to torment men like Saul or Job and even his own son Christ.

  • Martha Wheeler

    The Bible says in the New Testament that he would send them strong delusions to believe a lie and be damned because they received not the love of the truth…so I do believe God is all powerful and can and will do whatsoever to bring his will to pass amen

  • Caleb

    Thank you so very much for publishing this I feel as well that this may be the appropriate way to interpret the passage as I have been struggling with it.

    A further way of understanding is by saying that if the king wouldn’t listen to the prophecy when it portrays what is negative then maybe he will listen to it if he portrays the negative truth in a positive light. So in a sense Micaiah is re-presenting the prophecy in a way that the king might “like” it. So the prophecy is in a sense ironic.

    Another way to possibly understand the passage is to look at it as being representative of the fact that noone can do anything without God allowing it, so at first God is inquiring, in story fashion, who will entice the king. Then God sees that the lying spirit will and since God allows people to have free will God knows that this can only lead to disaster for the king.

    Either way if God had wanted a downfall for the king then he wouldn’t have had Micaiah warn him.

  • RJC

    A simpler interpretation is that when people insist on going their own way (sin or selfishness) eventually God gives them what they want.

  • O. B. Server

    What about Job, chapters one through four? That seems a very similar idea. Not a lying spirit per se, but a Satan-caused quick series of negative ‘coincidental’ events, that were immediately subject to about 30 chapters of Satanically-prompted darkened “counsel by words without knowledge?” Earlier we are told God asks (Satan) to consider Job – and then proceeds to allow Satan to suggest to God to “put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath” – which the Lord does.

    Apparently, things are not so simple.

    • Anonymous

      I did a Ctrl-F on Job to see if someone raised this point.  Landed squarely on your comment ;).

  • http://whanethewhip.wikidot.com/ Whane The Whip

    No, the lord did not send a “lying spirit”, the lord lied and the angel delivered the lie since the angel is only a messenger, not the author.  This is a very long winded over-complicated article to explain away the obvious hook in the story, that god lies. There are other references to “lying spirits” too, all under control of god… according to the Bible. The real question 1 Kings 22 begs is, since god is so powerful, why not just snap his fingers and kill off the king instead of setting up nations to go to war… just to kill one man.

    • Jonathan Morgan

      The prophets were false prophets.  They were already used to prophesying what the king wanted to hear.  They were doing what they wanted to do: God was just making sure it would happen.

      • http://whanethewhip.wikidot.com/ Whane The Whip

        Sorry, no. According to the story, the prophets correctly heard the lie of god delivered to them. That makes them true prophets since they correctly corroborated what was said to them by the angel. It would be the reliability of the prophets to correctly identify and deliver the message that made them ideal targets of the lying spirit sent by god. I.E., the lying spirit could only deliver the prophecy to real prophets because they alone would be able to hear. However one prophet saw the lie of god and explained in great detail of how it was all some elaborate scam to send the king to his death, he however was inclined to believe that the story was made up… and according to the story it was not made since in the end, he was killed.

        Even if you find none of that agreeable, it still does not explain away the fact that god sent an angel to lie, therefore god is a liar, regardless of what the prophets did. If I lied to you, and you didn’t catch it… I would still be a liar.

        • Jonathan Morgan

          What they were prophesying was false.  That alone would make them false prophets.  Nor, even if you accept the vision as literal, does it say anything about the spirit speaking with the prophets, or it being an angel delivering a message from God.  Nor in that case would God be limited to speaking only to true prophets.  However, I see this example as similar to the example of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  This only happened after Pharaoh had hardened his own heart, and was an example of God working with a choice and a character that Pharaoh had already chosen and showed to make his plan work.  In the same way here, these prophets seem highly representative of the group of false prophets spoken against in the books of the prophets.  They wanted to make pleasant prophecies so they would be rewarded for it.  To be known as official prophets in such a large group must have meant that they had done this before (while the true prophet of God had a reputation for giving unpleasant prophecies because he was actually God’s prophet and God was not happy with Ahab).  It then seems reasonable to me that God works with the choices they have already made.

          • http://whanethewhip.wikidot.com/ Whane The Whip

            I think perhaps we are looking at the story differently. I think you see it is a figurative representation. I see it as a story that was intended to be taken literally. So for example when you say “Nor, even if you accept the vision as literal, does it say … an angel delivering a message from God.” I do take it as a literal representation and as such it does say exactly that in:

            “21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’And the spirit said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’**And the Lord said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.**’”

          • Jonathan Morgan

            Firstly, I wouldn’t guarantee that “spirit” is the same as “angel” (though it could be – I’ve just never imagined it that way).  However, my first point about taking it literally would be to say that literally it wasn’t an angel giving a message to the prophets to pass on, but a spirit actually in the mouths of the prophets making (?) them say the message whether they wanted to or not.  To me this raises very severe questions like:
            1. Do these prophets have no choice?
            2. How come Zedekiah seems so confident in his message if it is really not him who is really saying it, but a spirit inside his mouth?

            It was thinking about these kinds of questions (prompted by your comments) that made me conclude that the key to the whole question was that these prophets *wanted* to prophecy whatever the king wanted to hear to get money, power and importance.  If you conclude this, then it is not hard work to make people do what they already want to do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jdelosre James Delos Reyes

    Kudos to the great explanation. I started to realize a lot of trouble spots in the Bible can be explained in terms of irony and sarcasm. It is difficult to know when someone is being sarcastic via text, but what i’ve often found is that if you dig deep into the surrounding context, it’s easier to see. I myself can be ironic/sarcastic at times, so it makes sense that people back in those days were too. Also, one thing I’m finding over and over again is that hardly anybody in the Old testament is really perfect in terms of character and that not everything that the Bible heroes did was even pleasing to God. This applies to prophets as well. So it’s not to say that Micaiah’s approach even pleased God. It says a lot that the people back then were just as messed up as people are now. For that, I’m thankful we can rest on God’s grace!